#253: Beauty and the Beast – The Sublime and the Ridiculous in Devil’s Planet (1951) by Manly Wade Wellman

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Like a latter-day Edgar Rice Burroughs, Manly Wade Wellman’s Earthman-out-of-his-element story casts the protagonist as a near-superhuman saviour who is hated by the powerful, championed by the underdog, and treated to sweet, sweet lovin’ by an appreciative female who’s clearly never experienced this sort of hunkiness before.  Think Jack Reacher of Mars for best (?) results.

Dillon Stover — tall, blond, muscular, “his young face made strong by the bony aggressiveness of nose and jaw”, unlikely scientist — comes to Mars to continue his grandfather’s work of forming enough of an atmosphere to prevent the water on the planet boiling away and thus providing relief to the citizens of that steadily-dessicating society (no-one needs breathing apparatus, though, so there’s clearly already enough of an atmosphere to retain oxygen…but let’s move swiftly on).  Early turns of phrase such as “the problem of the Martian water shortage had absorbed him” might raise your hopes, but be in no doubt: this is all pulp, most of the time (we’ll get back to that).  Stover is framed for a murder he couldn’t have committed yet which a witness insists he did, and then we’re in a fairly standard man-on-the-run pulp serial from the 1930s.

The Ramble House edition of this book shown above is 145 pages long, but the slightly larger font makes it probably 115 pages in reality, and for most of its length you’re kept pretty busy — deaths, capture, escape, accusation, thrilling derring-do, deaths, capture, escape, suspicion, death…originally serialised in 1942 — I do not know what, if any, changes were made for this novelised version — this ticks all the boxes of such a tale: the dialogue is terrible, the action barely makes any sense, each chapter is a vignette almost in its own right…apart from a few technical gizmos and one element we’ll come to later this could easily be Los Angeles or London or somewhere else with Big Business Folk, Untrustworthy Hardbitten Cops, Suspicious Political Toadies, and of course Lovely, Lovely Ladies.

And yet, and yet…there’s something here which does sort of elevate it above the standard schlock.  Stover is an asshole with a penchant for just hitting people when they irritate him, and who seems to take being slung in the calaboose following a very credible accusation of murder against him as a personal slight rather than the logical action of a conscientious police force, but there is actual growth in his character as the story progresses, and he does start to engender something akin to — if not quite sympathy — at least a reduced disdain from the reader’s perspective.  Injuries hamper him (with a sort of grim moue, no doubt) when it becomes necessary to raise the stakes, and can then be neglected when he wants to punch someone or climb a rope, but this authorly character-deification (you thought I was joking about the Jack Reacher similarities, didn’t you?) irritated me far less towards the end than it did at the start.

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Although, now I think about it…

Around him, there’s an equal mixture of the cursed and the blessed.  Far and away the most interesting character is Robert Buckalew, who knew Stover’s grandfather and may or may not have a hand in the calamities that befall him, almost permanently shrouded in various mysteries around his age, his dealings with various antagonists, and the early nebulous threat of being exposed by “a single word”.  As a second-string story, I actually think the Buckalew Conundrum is pretty tip-top; once the revelations of the impossible murder are settled, the resolution of who Buckalew is, where his loyalties lie, and how and why he acted in the way he did is honestly probably brilliant.  Mad, but brilliant.  If any other character comes out of this as well-rounded as Buckalew, I failed to notice.

And what of the Martians?  For a story set on Mars we see very little of them, but Wellman does a very interesting thing in the presentation of their speech (which I at first thought was a typo) that a canny way of communicating their differentness without constantly having to make references to physical appearance, attitude, or cultural back-story.  This fits in very well with his general asceticness of style, with everything conveyed in a terse and propulsive manner and only the occasional diversion into a moment of atmospheric phrasing or a lingering pass at environmental description.  It’s essentially Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) — in that we have a nightclub, some apartments, a desert, a police station, and a story about water — with hovering cars and clunky robots, but the fact that Wellman isn’t trying to convey some deeper message about society helps: he’s free to just get on with his story.

But for something that could so easily have been set in a contemporary Earth city, there must be a reason for the SF trappings if it’s not some thinly-veiled allegory.  And that comes about from the impossible murder.  In his review at Beneath the Stains of Time, TomCat says that “the method for the locked room explosion deserves a nod of acknowledgment, because it’s clever and reasonably well clued,” and this is what I can’t decide.  The clewing is, to my mind, the bare minimum required, with mention of something that — if you know the world — you might start to put together, but I see no reason why we, the reader, should have any idea that what’s done is even possible in this reality.  But it’s certainly very…novel, even if a huge amount of convenience (not to mention speedy work!) would be required for this to happen as successfully as it does as repeatedly as it does.

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Proof-reader fail…

But, well, no-one is pretending this is likely, and it’s certainly far, far easier a sell in this milieu.  It is clever, too, but is it too ridiculous?  This is where I come unstuck, and part of why I haven’t saved this for a standard stars-at-the-end review: I just don’t know how good it is.  As something that shows the diversity of plotting available within the impossible crime subgenre it’s great — not quite up there with Inherit the Stars, nor A Quantum Murder, mind — and it unquestionably deserves kudos for the inventive way it resolves the two main mystery strands.

If you want to know if it’s any good, however, well, you’re going to have to read it yourself…

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Blonde (woman or man).

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5 thoughts on “#253: Beauty and the Beast – The Sublime and the Ridiculous in Devil’s Planet (1951) by Manly Wade Wellman

  1. Once again, we don’t entirely agree on the merits of a certain locked room story. What else is new?

    Anyway, your objections are fair enough, but, personally, I was fascinated to have stumbled across a science-fiction mystery with an impossible crime predating Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel by more than a decade – which is generally considered to be the proto-type of the science-fiction/mystery hybrid. So that alone makes Devil’s Planet a historically interesting novel (or novelette?).

    My problem is that Wellman never explored, or even explained, why scientific and cultural progress had slowed down in the universe of Devil’s Planet. Obviously, there was a scientific Golden Age in the past that brought them to Mars, but, after that, everything seems to have stagnated in that world. The technically is unimpressive for something set a 1000 years into the future and the only cultural references are to the “ancient works” (e.g. Alice in Wonderland) from our time.

    It would have helped the “world-building” story-telling if this stagnation had been explained and perhaps tied-in with the drying up of Mars or something.

    Otherwise, I found this to be a very fun and entertaining story. Very pulpy, but fun.

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    • Oh, it’s definitely fun, and I didn’t go into it expecting anything like world-building — I suspected it would be pulpy and derivative, and that’s exactly what I was after.

      I suppose my difficulty is in a similar vein to yours, though: namely that there’s insufficient background to really know how feasible his locked room solution is in that universe. A lack of preparation had undone many a fabulous idea, and I can’t decide how fatal it is here.

      Part of me should just relax, hey? It was a fun time, weird in an not entirely displeasing way, and certainly novel (possibly original?) in its locked room murder. I should let it go at that, it’s not exactly the Brexit negotiations in terms of importance…

      Like

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